Beyond the Election

Let’s take a moment to look past the looming presidential election. Within a few days the formal voting will take place. How long until the dust settles and one or another candidate is anointed the winner is anybody’s guess. Soon enough we will have to come to terms with a new, post-election, reality.

The Left will emerge from this election as we enter it: divided on analysis, strategy, and even objectives. I mean, like, way divided! At one end of the spectrum we have the “lesser evil” advocates (including Democratic Socialists of America, the Communist Party and a large swath of the labor movement) who point to the policy areas (choice, the environment) where Kerry propounds a more progressive stance than Bush. Another current (Kerry Haters for Kerry, Lizard Strategy, Progressives and Independents to Defeat Bush) calls for independent organizing to elect Kerry for a variety of tactical reasons without conceding any qualitative differences between the candidates. The Green Party seeks a vote for its slate in states where either major party has a “lock” and (implicitly) for the Dems in contested states. The Nader/Camejo campaign is rallying supporters on the premise that the two parties differ so little that staking out an anti-corporate pole is more important than worrying about which politician wins (the Libertarians take a comparable position although grounding it in different politics). Others, including CounterPunch support the notion that elections are not all that important. Another contingent–unorganized but nevertheless present–argue that a Bush victory would be preferable since it would be an easier target for mobilization.

To the right of the spectrum Republicans for Kerry believe that the war in Iraq and the state of the economy conspire to assure that the next administration will be a failed presidency that will usher in a long period of rule by this year’s losing party. They hope that by the time the Kerry administration self destructs there will be less inept Republicans prepared to take the lead.

The movements and organizations who seek justice and human and civil rights for their constituencies will have to find a way to talk and work with each other if we are to have an impact on the political landscape which is taking shape. Whatever our view of the differences (or not) between the candidates, the election of one or the other provides a somewhat different menu of opportunities and challenges. The deeper issues will be the same in either case. To put it crudely, where there is consensus among the corporate ruling class on any issue then Democrats and Republicans will display equally slavish devotion to carrying out their will. As a class these folks agree about profits; about U.S. military and economic supremacy; about “free trade” globalization (including corporate-friendly immigration policies); about maintaining their control over the media; about weakening the bargaining power of working people (the Democrats want to keep the labor movement viable as a desperately dependent voting block but not as a force that can confront capital); about preventing any egalitarian health care reform from being implemented; about the upward shift in resources and the downward shift in tax burdens which leaves very little wriggle room on funding for community services.

The issues that have no economic impact on the rich (or about which they are divided) are permissible as debating topics for the parties. They are usually known as “social issues.” In many cases the differences are only a matter of lip service. The Democrats support for the Kyoto Accords is positive but those accords are a pale mockery of what is needed. In some cases there are degrees of difference: GLBT people should only have some rights restricted. In other cases they can make a difference to particular constituencies. Abortion rights, logging or drilling regulations, medical research, specific funding decisions can have a significant impact on some peoples’ lives. These differences, both real and imagined, are what will require differing strategies depending on which party holds the White House.

Stated simply, organizing against a Bush administration holds the prospect of being wide but shallow, whereas mobilizing against Kerry could be deeper but narrower. Bush is a “uniter” in the sense that a broad opposition both here and internationally that can encompass radicals, liberals, moderate republicans and many sectors who are not particularly progressive. The loudest voices in such a cacophony would be of those who consider Bush­not the system he administers­to be the problem. Their greatest ambition then as now would be to save the world by getting the Democrats into office.

Fighting a Kerry government would require a more sophisticated analysis. If Kerry is pursuing the war in Iraq, “free trade” globally and “homeland security” domestically, any critique must recognize that both parties are part of the problem. Broader challenges to militarism and corporate capitalism will necessarily play a central part in building opposition to the regime. At the same time many of the mainstream liberal organizations will fall away, seeking the kinds of real or symbolic rewards that might favor their constituents (or their careers). Even leaders who have no illusions about the New Dems may feel constrained to be easy on the administration out of fear of losing what little protection they can offer their supporters. In effect we will be offered opportunities to abandon the most vulnerable constituencies (those without a strong presence at the polls) in exchange for some concessions to somewhat more privileged ones.

Either outcome will evoke disillusionment among people who pinned their hopes on Kerry. With a Bush win it will hit right away. A Kerry victory will have more of the “Clinton effect” as young voters who believed the pro-Kerry hype will see support for their issues slowly diluted, sidelined and sometimes reversed.

In the absence of any “viable” alternative, leadership of liberal reform groups will undoubtedly approach the 2008 elections with the same frenzied desperation to secure a Democratic victory, regardless of who has governed in the interim.

The existence of a broad ruling class consensus on the general direction of the empire has made it more difficult for the major parties to differentiate themselves. This explains the increasingly vicious and personal nature of political campaigns as the candidates must focus more on each other’s “character” and morality than on substantive policy. While there are people in the governing clique that would welcome a more openly fascistic mode of governance, they have yet to make a compelling case to the corporate class that this is a wise or viable course. At the same time they have moved the discourse to the right sufficiently that the Democrats have embraced many of their precepts.

It is important to make clear that a left critique of the Democrats is not that they move too slowly in the right direction, but that they move in the same wrong direction as their rivals, differing mainly in how they seek to build consensus around it. In some cases they slow the deterioration of public life and in others they accelerate it (as in Clinton’s attacks on poor people and the environment). They are not a Social Democratic reform party.

As we approach the post-election period there are a number of things that the left, particularly the radical left, should consider:

1) No matter who wins the election there will be people on the left who in some way contributed to that outcome. We should resist the temptations of the blame game and consider the conditions we find ourselves under. The different strategies we have pursued going into the elections were based on differing assessments of what we are up against. Time may (or may not) tell us who was right. We should avoid a repeat of the hand-wringing of 2000 when even progressives obsessed over Nader’s small share of the white vote rather than the massive re-introduction of Jim Crow voting manipulations. The initiative by Philadelphia-based Training for Change in creating a post-election “Where do we go from here” strategy workshop is a positive step that might be replicated in other cities.

2) This election will not mark a major change of direction in imperial policy. We do, however, need to assess how the terrain has been changing,. The end of the Cold War has encouraged the corporados to embark on a world wide feeding frenzy that threatens the survival of many people, the destruction of communities and the devastation of the tattered ecology of our planet. Movement activists must take seriously the need to develop strategies aimed at removing these people from global dominance. Piecemeal advances by isolated constituencies are not good enough.

3) Fragmented movements can and will be used against each other. A unified movement requires a common vision. Since the decimation of radical movements under the guise of anti-communism, the Left has been timid about offering an alternative moral stance. To collectively articulate a unifying principle such as “no one gets seconds until everyone has had firsts” could revolutionize the public discourse. That people are hungry for a moral alternative to shallow consumerism is a lesson that we can well learn from the evangelical Right.

4) There is by all appearances more organizing happening now than was the case 35 years ago at the height of the mass movements of the 1960s. Much of it is smarter. An asset present then that is missing now is that then our work was considered part of one movement whereas now we work in many “movements” (often mediated by “non-profit corporations”). We need to be a movement again, able and willing to make each others struggles our own.

5) The electoral cycles will continue to witness the erosion of democratic public space unless we can build a strong, independent movement in the streets, shop floors, schools, places of worship, prisons, and other places where people congregate. This movement must develop the capacity to materially disrupt the military, economic, and cultural operations of the system or it will be irrelevant.

6) Over the past thirty five years counterinsurgency has morphed into social control. The overseers of public order were badly frightened by their loss of control of the cultural and political landscape of that time. Massive state resources are devoted to keep poor people of color in a constant revolving door between the streets and the prisons. Drug, immigration, and quality of life laws are today’s Black Codes, geared to prevent an oppositional leadership from gaining a foothold and a following. Building a viable opposition requires protecting and supporting the most targeted segments of the population so that they can get the oxygen needed to take their struggle.

7) Paradoxically, elections become less significant the more we invest in them. If we build a powerful movement outside of the electoral arena, then we have weight that can be felt directly or indirectly at election time. If we spend our time working within the parameters of the voting system then when the elections come we will have little leverage (and what we have can be guided into harmless channels). It is interesting to note that when we have had powerful mass movements the elites have been desperate to bring us into the electoral system.

The growing convergence of the Republicans and Democrats is a symptom of the weakness of the Left. The Liberal establishment is a creature of fear and reassurance: today they pose as a less threatening alternative to the Right Wing juggernaut. Thirty years ago they were the less threatening alternative to the radical upsurge. If the people’s movements retake the initiative, I’m sure they will find a way to retool themselves again.

The building of mass movements (or perhaps more accurately, setting the stage for them) takes place according to rhythms that have little to do with electoral cycles. Power resides in the streets or in the suites, not in the halls of government. Whoever we put into public office must respond to the gravitational pull of one or the other. If we are not strong enough on the outside then they are easily lost to us or ineffectual.

Elections, like negotiations, are an indicator of the existing balance of power. If we can keep them in perspective and organize around the issues that impact our people with the vision that a better world is indeed possible (and certainly more viable than the current one) then we can nurture movements strong enough that, come elections, we will have shaped the options and our choices will mean something.

In the meantime it is only if we take to heart the notion that power resides in the streets, workplaces, and communities and not in the polling booth will we be able to build a movement strong enough that, in the end, our votes will mean something.

Ricardo Levins Morales is a political artist and activist based at the Northland Poster Collective. ricardo@northlandposter.com This article may be circulated freely if used in its entirety.

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